December’s reading

“Clouds running across the face of a waning moon.  Distant flashes of lightening.  I know what it is, a “warm front”, etc. And who cares what the weather may be? It is money that cares about weather and pays to predict it, perhaps some day to control it. And who wants a world in which weather is controlled by money?”
– Thomas Merton

December’s reading has been a little restricted.  I found it impossible to concentrate whilst I was in hospital and despite now being out, I am still very very limited in what I can eat so I’m rather tired and not sleeping well.

However, I have read (or at least started reading) The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore and The Cloudspotters Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, both excellent starts for weather related reading.

Other useful resources have included the Future Learn weather course, the Met Office, Folklore Thursday and the Open Learn Surviving the Winter course.  There are also a lot of links within individual posts so if a particular topic is of interest I’d suggest you try there.  From a literature point of view, I drew a lot on my GCSE and A Level English Literature as well as my wide range of reading material.  I’m intrigued as to whether I will notice weather more when reading fiction in the future…

A website I didn’t have time to look at properly but which I think would be useful and shine a different light on weather is Living In The Weather World:

[Living in the weather world] is for researchers, teachers, students, and school children who want to build a sense of connectedness with the natural world, both the slowly changing world of plants, animals and the physical environment, and the faster changing world of the weather, as they come together into one weather-world.

Another book I haven’t read is Where The Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt.

TV wise, Inside the Met Office and Volitile Earth (both on 4OD) were interesting, there are a large number of weather related disaster films (and don’t forget the Wizard of Oz) and these short youtube videos are also worth a watch:

There were lots of other weather related topics I wanted to look at this month but they shall wait for another time.  One of these was a post which I hoped would echo What can we learn from the fog? but with a different type of weather, probably rain.  I might return to this on a wet and windy day when I have a bit more energy.  But for now, as we enter January, we turn from rain and wind to the birds which fly through them.

Just a little proud boast; I’ve written over 82,000 words in my nature and writing project so far despite a host of challenges and am feeling pretty satisfied.  Whilst word count is irrelevant, especially for this, it does give me a sense of achievement.

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Get your head in the clouds

I am reading the amazing and comprehensive The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  I had hoped to be able to take you on a tour of the ten main types of clouds but the hospital stay means I’m a bit behind in my reading and my learning so I’ll be focusing on the lower clouds.  That is the cumulus, cumulonimbus, status and stratocumulus.  If you’re interested in clouds and want to know about the rest of them then do buy his book and check out the Cloud Appreciation Society website.  My writings here are informed by other sources including the Future Learn Learn About Weather course which was run alongside the met office.

“Nothing in nature rivals [clouds] variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”
– Pretor-Pinney

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Flying through the clouds

Clouds and the sky are scattered through our language.  We talk of there being not a cloud in the sky, of having a grey cloud above us, of silver linings and blue sky thinking.  We create image after image of gods and goddesses sitting on the clouds.  But how often do most of us actually look up and see them?  We should.  Pretor-Pinney describes clouds as “nature’s poetry”, as “expressions of the atmosphere’s moods” and from a practical point, learning about clouds helps you know what the weather might do next.

One of the wonderful things about clouds is their impermanence.  They are almost always changing, transforming, becoming what they want or racing over the sky towards their next adventure.

Cumulus

A little latin comes in handy here, cumulus is the word for heap and this is a good description of a cumulus cloud.  These are like the clouds that children draw, like heaps of cotton wool scattered across the sky.

Cumulus clouds, in Hinduism and Buddhism, are the spiritual cousins of elephants. And elephants are said to have the power to bring rain so are, or were, worshipped and prayed to in order to bring the monsoon rains.

Interesting fact: a medium sized cumulus cloud ways about the same as 80 elephants.

It’s easy to forget that clouds are made up of water droplets, until it rains that is.  But we don’t need to worry here, cumulus clouds are generally associated with good weather.  It’s the cumulonimbus you need to be aware of…

Cumulonimbus

Extreme.  Destructive.  Stormy.  Violent.  That is the cumulonimbus.

It is these clouds which bring rain, hail, snow, lightening, gales, tornadoes and devastation.  They can injure and they can kill.

They can be taller than Mount Everest and can contain energy equivalent to ten Hiroshima sized bombs.

This is undoubtably the Kind of the Clouds.

This is the playground bully who didn’t need or want any friends.

Aside from the cues from the weather, you can tell a cumulonimbus by it’s size and the classic formation has a top which spreads out and looks like a blacksmith’s anvil.  Because this cloud needed more weaponry…

Interesting fact: This is the cloud that you’d be on if you were on cloud nine.  When The International Cloud Atlas was published in 1896 it was ninth on the list.  And whilst it doesn’t sound like a cloud you’d want to be anywhere near, the saying has probably come about because it is the tallest of clouds.

If you want to know what it’s like to be in one of these nasty beasts, read about William Rankin who had to eject from his plane above one of them.

Stratus

Stratus clouds seem a bit like the relation that no one really likes… They are the flat, slow moving clouds which blanket the sky and don’t give you much to look up for.  They epitomise the overcast, dreary day.  To give you a feel for them, when they form at ground level they are called fog or mist.

Stratocumulus

These are low patchy clouds with well defined bases, looking a bit like candyfloss.  They might appear as clumps and their colour varies from bright white to dark grey.  Occasionally they will bring light rain or snow.

An extreme example is the Morning Glory, a cloud which forms in Australia and which extreme cloud watchers, but more often gliders, travel great distances to see.  This cloud can be as big as Britain….!

Lots of useful links

“You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella…”

Following all that talk of rain, I felt umbrellas would be a good next step.  One of the many ways we try to avoid nature and also, in a positively English and polite way, to poke out peoples eyes.

So here’s a few things you probably didn’t know about umbrellas:

  • The word “umbrella” comes the Latin umbra, meaning shaded or shadow
  • A collapsible umbrella from the 1st century was found in the tomb of Wang Guang
  • The oldest written record of a collapsible umbrella dates back to n all written records, the oldest reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 AD
  • The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was introduced in 1710 and worked in much the same way as they do today.
  • The 19th century was a very productive stage in umbrella innovation.
  • The uptake in umbrella use in the UK may have been a contributing factor towards the lengthening of the average life.
  • In 1978 a modified umbrella was used to inject Georgi Markov with a dose of ricin.
  • In 2005, in South Africa, Brian Hahn was beaten to death with an umbrella.
  • On a slightly cheerier note, National Umbrella Day is 10th February and is apparently celebrated around the world.
  • For a very very long time umbrellas were only used by women as men who used them were considered effeminate…

If these facts have er, whet your appetite, there is a very detailed history of the umbrella on Wikipedia if you want the full story.

Bad luck

One thing a lot of us have heard at some point is that having an umbrella up inside the house is bad luck, but why might this be so?

Well, first we need to consider the symbolism of the umbrella.  Most obviously it is used in weather forecasting as an icon for rain but it is also a symbol of the Pope, representing protection.  The related parasol is a symbol of Himalayan Buddhism representing sky, protection and learning.  So, there is a certain element of sacredness associated with the umbrella.

We also find that in ancient Egypt the umbrella was a symbol of goddess Nut’s protection.  Her body covered the entire sky and important people were shaded by parasols covered in peacock feathers.  It was said that the shadow from these parasols were sacred.  Because of this association, it was considered an insult to Nut to open an umbrella inside.

Sort of related to this is the idea that as umbrellas protect you against the storms of life, opening one in your home would be an insult to the guardian spirits of your house and would cause them to get very annoyed and leave you unprotected.

Similarly, one explanation is based on pixies, goblins and fairies enjoyment of living inside upturned objects.  This would mean if you opened your umbrella they would fall out and to do so in your house would result in chaos.  The key message coming through here is that you do not want to anger the pixies, goblins, fairies, guardian spirits or sky goddesses…

Apparently umbrellas used to often be used to cover the heads of catholic priests during last rites so were associated with death and it was said that opening one inside would invite death into the household.

There is also a practical aspect to discouraging the opening of umbrellas indoors.  In around the 18th century when they were coming into use in Britain, umbrellas were a bit bulky with slightly unpredictable mechanisms as well as steel ribs.  Opening one of these indoors, in a crowded room, could easily result in poking eyes out or knocking over than expensive vase that had been in the family for years.  Not good, and especially bad if you were a visitor to the house!

You should also keep umbrellas off the table or risk more bad luck coming your way…

Useful links

Surviving the winter: Plants and animals

Whilst I struggle with winter, at least I have a warm and cosy flat and somewhere dry and comfy to snuggle up.  Plants and animals don’t have it so easy.  Over time they have adapted a number of different ways to cope with the harsh weather that winter brings.

There are four main strategies for coping with winter:

  1. Stay active, but adapt
  2. Hibernate
  3. Die, leaving offspring behind in a form that lets them survive
  4. Migrate

Before we look at the options, let’s consider the problems that plants and animals face in the UK.  Obviously it’s cold.  There are frosts and this is a really significant factor as most organisms are made up of a lot of water and frost can lead to their tissues freezing which leads to death.  Other problems include reduced food supply, shorter days can mean less time to find food, lack of light, shortage of water in a liquid form, after all, you can’t drink ice.

Plants and animals know when winter is approaching by sensing environmental cues such as lower temperatures and shorter days.  This knowledge means they can start preparing, for example by building up fat reserves, shedding leaves, hoarding food etc.

Stay active, but adapt

Some organisms continue to be active despite the challenging weather and are able to do this because over time they have adapted strategies to help them.  Growing thicker feathers or fur is one such adaptation; the house sparrow has 11.5% more feathers in winter than in summer.  Squirrels which hide away nuts for the winter are another example of adapting to the weather.

Social behaviours change.  Birds which are normally solitary or found in pairs form flocks for the winter.  This increases food efficiency, reduces heat loss and increases protection from predators.

In the plant world, we see evergreen plants toughing it out.  The main issue for them in the winter is lack of water.  Their needle shaped leaves reduce surface area and this reduces water loss.  They also have a waxy layer which further prevents water loss.  This means the tree retains water throughout the winter and thus are better able to survive.  A lot of adaptations however mean trade offs.  In this case, the shape of the needles makes them less efficient in the spring and summer.

Deciduous trees also struggle with reduced water over winter and it’s also harder to photosynthesise when there is less light.  They’ve dealt with this issue by letting go of their leaves.  Before they do so, they move the water, sugars, minerals etc from the leaves to the woody part of the tree.  Then the chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down and reabsorbed into the main tree.  This leaves behind other pigments which aren’t useful to the tree such as orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls which is why leaves become the gorgeous colours we associate with autumn.

Hibernation

Some animals will go into a full state of hibernation whilst others go into a sort of semi-hibernation which is affected by weather conditions.

In hibernation, the metabolic activity reduces significantly which helps them to conserve energy and survive the winter.  This includes incredibly low heart rates, as low as 10% of their normal heart rate.

Before hibernation, these animals must eat a lot of food and store it as fat.  Whilst this strategy allows animals to survive the difficult winter, it is imperative that they find food again soon after emerging.

Hedgehogs are one example of a true hibernator.  Depending on the weather, they may enter hibernation any time between October and December and emerge again in March or April.  During this period, their heartbeat can fall from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute and its body temperature drops from 35˚C to just 10˚C.

Other UK hibernators include bats, dormice, some insects such as ladybirds, amphibians and reptiles.

Die

This might sound a drastic solution to facing winter but it’s one a number of species implement.  For example, annual plants will complete their life cycle in a year.  During the summer they release their seeds and then they start to die, but leaving behind lots of babies in the form of seeds.  Seeds are a much better form to face the winter in than as a leafy, lush plant which will not be able to cope with frost.

Another organism which often uses this strategy is butterflies.  Many butterflies die shortly after mating and laying eggs and their young then face winter as caterpillars and chrysalises which is much safer.  Some butterflies have adapted to hibernate over winter instead.

Migrate

About 40% of the birds that breed in Britain don’t spend winter here, instead heading off for sunnier places.  But it’s not just birds that migrate, caribou, reindeer, monarch butterflies and other insects all do as well (obviously not UK examples!).

Migration allows animals to find warmer places with better food supplies and less risk of freezing to death.  However, it’s not an easy option.  It’s estimated that swallows suffer 67% annual mortality, much of which is during migration.  Migration is an expensive venture in terms of calories and brings with it risks of predators, shooters and ….

Whilst you might not think it, more northerly birds do migrate to the UK for our comparatively warmer winters.  This includes many kinds of ducks and geese as well as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings.

Migrant butterflies include red admirals and painted ladies which arrive in vast numbers so their caterpillars can hatch here and enjoy the thistles and nettles in the summer.

A likely overlooked migrant is the basking shark which heads to our shores over the summer to eat the concentrated numbers of plankton found here.

Useful links

It’s raining, it’s pouring: Further afield

Having looked at rain and floods here in York, I’m now moving on to a more extreme form of rain, monsoons.

Before we get started though, we need to look at the definition of a monsoon.  A monsoon is a seasonal shift in winds.  Possibly not the definition you were expecting.  Surely a monsoon is about rain and the wet season?  Well, the shift in winds brings the rain.  The winds suddenly come from a different source and they come bearing water.

India is well known for its monsoon season and numerous sources on the internet say that the country experiences to most dramatic monsoon in the world so India will be my focus here.  But before I turn to India, it’s worth noting that there are many places around the world which have a monsoon including countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos, India, and Pakistan.  Parts of Australia, Africa and the Americas also experience monsoon rains.

Let’s head back to India where the monsoon heralds a season of love, romance and enchantment.  This may be hard to make sense of in England where the rains send us all scurrying for shelter but in India, the monsoon rains are the gift of life.  In some areas, 90% of the annual rain arrives with the monsoon (although on average it’s about 75%).  This makes the monsoon an essential source of water for drinking, cooking, for livestock, for farming, for industries, for hydroelectric power, irrigation and so much more.  To say that the monsoon waters make or break the Indian economy is not an exaggeration.

When the peacock begins to dance, the monsoon is on its way
– Old Indian saying

The monsoon season is changing.  It is becoming harder to predict and more powerful, bringing heavier rains and arriving earlier than normal.  It is already hard enough to predict, accurately, the start of the monsoon.  A government department monitors the weather across India and farmers use this information along with traditional methods to plan their planting.  Too soon and the seeds will have no water to grow, too late and they will drown.

Its clear to see that the monsoon rains are a time for celebration in India.  They are life bringing, life affirming.  They are a creative force and a reinvigorating energy.  They bring hope, happiness and joy.  They cleanse the hot air, refreshing and recharging the land and the people.

But these rhythmic cycles are not always a blessing, they can turn in an instant into a curse.  They cause chaos by creating waterlogged roads, disruption to trains, close schools and airports and play havoc with business.  They can damage crops, homes, kill animals, kill humans… People die from electrocution when water reaches live cables.  They become ill when stagnant pools of water form and create excellent breeding grounds for malaria, cholera, typhoid etc.  People get struck by lightening – there are an estimated 500,000 lightening strikes in a monsoon.  In 2005, at least 1100 people died in India during the monsoon.  In 2013, an estimated 5,700 people were killed.

And if you are unlucky enough to live somewhere which isn’t in the monsoons path that year, you face a whole host of other problems.  You have little or no water for your family, your livestock, to grow crops.  When this occurs, people move to areas where the rain has fallen and ghost towns are left behind.  Where people haven’t left their homes, the effects of drought can kill and farmers are known to take their own lives.

Without the monsoon, death becomes the dominant force.

Plants and animals don’t escape the monsoon either.  Those animals in areas of rainfall need to head to higher grounds and to do so can involve crossing roads and encountering people (who tend to be a big danger, worldwide, to animals).  Those in areas of drought face the problem of lack of water and the knock on effect of lack of vegetation.

The monsoon has shaped the land and lives of India for many years and will continue to do so for many more.  Rain truly is a powerful force.

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

On rain: “It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms.  And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognise, rhythms that are not those of the engineer”
– Thomas Merton

How we talk about rain is very important I think.  I explained a bit about how language shapes our views and rain does not fare well in this.  As a society we equate rain with some sort of terrible thing which is happening to us personally to make our day go badly.  We attempt to avoid the rain, hurrying under umbrellas from building to building and cursing if our feet get wet.  How much stress would we save ourselves if we accepted the rain and were thankful for the good that it does.

“Of course, the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city… the streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness , it’s baptism and its renewal.”
– Thomas Merton

Having said all of that, I am not a fan of the rain.  Rain means I have to wear my wheelchair waterproof if I want to leave my flat.  This means I have to have someone with me to get it on and off as I can’t do that myself.  It also makes it hard to go into shops etc as it makes me take up a lot more space, it’s not easy to get on and off and my hand is under a cover so the controller does get wet.  This means I only have my left hand available and if I want to check my phone or pay for anything I have to scrabble around underneath the waterproof with my left arm which is covered in droplets of water.  So despite all the effort I have to go to, I still get a bit wet.  And I can’t go out on my own.  And I can’t go out on my own if there’s a high chance of rain and I’m not going to be near any helpful strangers.  NB, not all strangers are happy to help, I’ve had people say no when I’ve asked politely if they could help me out of my waterproof.

So, my feeling about rain feels justified.  The lack of appropriate aids makes the rain quite debilitating.  But for most people this isn’t the case.

The power of rain

Despite everything I’ve just said about rain not being evil, it is immensely powerful.  It wears down rocks and soil into tiny fragments over time.  It plays a key role in dissolving certain rocks and it causes devastation and destruction in the form of floods.

York

It is floods that I’m going to focus on here.  I live in York, a city prone to flooding.  It floods every year, normally several times and sometimes quite severely.  You might have seen news coverage a few years back of David Cameron standing in flood water, that was at the end of my street.  Aside, don’t stand in flood water, it can be dangerous, it can have stronger currents than you think and be deeper than you think…

Flooded

2007 floods

There are two rivers which run through the centre of York, the river Ouse and the Foss which converge in the city.  The Ouse is the principal drainage basin in Yorkshire and is formed by the Ouse Gill Beck and the River Ure, Swale and Nid as well as a number of tributaries.  Interesting aside, until 1757 the Ouse was a tidal river.  The River Foss originates in the Howardian Hills, north of the city.  York’s floods tend to occur because of heavy rainfall and/or melting snow up river.

We know that York has experienced devastating flooding with records going back to 1263 AD. Notable floods occurred in 1947, 1948, 1982 and 2000.  More recently, there were serious floods in 2007 and 2012 as well as the 2015 floods.

Whilst there are many measures in place to reduce the impact of floods in York, it is not a problem that is going to go away.  Lets face it, we’ve had almost a millennia to figure out options!

Reflection

Forgive the image quality, this was 2007… Trees standing in water is a common sight in York.

But why does York flood so much? Well, it turns out this seems to be on the GCSE Geography curriculum based on my google search!  It’s obviously a multifaceted answer:

Firstly, York is a vale and the Yorkshire Dales to the east are steep which means fast runoff from the slopes into the rivers.  It also means less water infiltrates the soil as there simply isn’t time for it to be absorbed.

Secondly, this problem is exacerbated by the impermeable clay which means water can’t soak into the ground.  As well as clay, the Dales are also made up of limestone which is very permeable and allows the water to pass through very quickly.  Combining this with the first reason basically means there is nowhere for the rain or snow to go other than down into the river.

Thirdly, at higher altitudes vegetation tends to be heather and moorland which doesn’t soak up much of the water or slow it down very much.  Another factor which means more water in the river.  There are some trees in the area which do intercept the water but deciduous trees only do this when they have leaves, and the worst of the floods tends to be in winter.

Human impact has a role to play as well.  Use of land for arable farming means less plant life to suck up the water, deforestation means less trees to do the same and urban developments also play a role.  Tarmacked roads, housing estates and shopping centres all mean water has less chance of being absorbed into the ground so instead it makes it into sewers, drains and ultimately the river.

Climate change is also playing a role in York floods.  We are experiencing wetter winters which of course means more water in the river which means there is less space for additional rain water.

But whilst the floods in York cause a lot of damage which involves a lot of money to sort out, they don’t tend to cause much in the way of injury and death.  Many other parts of the world are not so lucky…

And that is a topic for another day…

Winter and me

Over on Poets & Writers, a prompt came up which sounded interesting and timely for my weather focus.

In preparation for cold winter months, red-toothed shrews are able to shrink their head and brain mass by 20 percent and then regrow it as the weather warms up in spring. With this survival strategy, they expend less energy when food resources are scarce. Does your energy level or your relationship to your body change during certain seasons? Does your body feel, act, or respond differently in the winter? Write a personal essay about measures you’ve taken, whether moderate or drastic, to adjust your body to difficult times or discomfiting temperatures at various points of the year. 

I have touched on my relationship with weather and with winter a few times but this felt like an interesting angle to approach it from.  This is not an essay but rather my very initial responses to the topic of winter and me.

As winter approaches, as the icy wind creeps over the landscape, you will find me retreating.  You will find me shrinking into my flat, into my bed, into my duvet.  I am no longer an outside creature.  No longer a creature of the weather.  If I could, I would hibernate.  But to do so is not possible in a human shell.  So instead I adopt the next best thing.  A season snuggled into my warm home, blankets, hot drinks and reassuring comfort.  I will mark my days with morning chills and evenings nesting.  I will conserve my energy.  Only moving when necessary and even then, I leave my den reluctantly.

Pyjamas and jumpers become my layers of choice and I will not leave the house without a blanket.  I am bundled up, my armour against the bitter winter.  Perhaps if I wear enough layers, the wind will not chill my bones, I will not slip on black ice and damage yet more of myself, the rain will not permeate my soul only to be released as tears.  Perhaps.

I move slower.  The cold tires me out.  My joints ache with the low temperatures.  Depression pulls like a ball and chain at my ankle, holding me back as I try to step forward.  So I stay still, in my nest, in a state of dormancy.

Of course, when I worked, I could not indulge myself in my semi-hibernation.  I had to get up, brave the frosty mornings and skate on the black ice to the office.  I had to fight my body and my mind to get out of bed, to leave the house.  The darkness, the grim shadowy mornings and nights, bothered me more then.  To work in the dark, a day at a desk far removed from daylight, then home in the dark.

Now, through my windows and occasional venture outdoors, I see the slither of day.  I do not battle my natural instinct to retreat but accept it for what it is and it makes this time of year easier.  I prepare, like a squirrel collecting nuts, only I collect ideas and projects and books that can all be carried out slowly from the safety of a blanket.  I do not sleep the winter away. But nor do I expect from myself the same level of activity as summer.

I am comfortable now, secure in my knowledge that as the seasons rise and fall, so too will I.